With NIH grant, UTEP to provide COVID-19 testing to underserved, vulnerable populations

A new research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will support The University of Texas at El Paso’s efforts to increase access to COVID-19 testing for populations disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

“There are these distant testing islands in El Paso County such as Fabens, Horizon City and Socorro where people may not have access to transportation or available testing options,” said Robert Kirken, Ph.D., dean of UTEP’s College of Science and principal investigator of the NIH grant. “The purpose of this program is to figure out how to reach out to them and get them in the testing program.”

UTEP is one of 55 institutions that received an NIH award through the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) program to support projects designed to rapidly implement COVID-19 testing strategies in populations including African-Americans, American Indians, Alaskan Natives, Latinos and Latinas, Native Hawaiians, older adults, pregnant women and those who are homeless or incarcerated.

The RADx-UP program supports research that aims to better understand COVID-19 testing patterns among underserved and vulnerable populations; strengthen the data on disparities in infection rates, disease progression and outcomes; and develop strategies to reduce the disparities in COVID-19 testing.

The UTEP program will use promotoras, or community health workers, to locate populations disproportionately affected by the pandemic and get them tested. Resources will be used to collect samples and test them at UTEP’s certified labs with a quick turnaround.

Participants will be asked to complete surveys to help researchers understand what issues they face that put them at higher risk for a variety of health concerns. This data will inform future health initiatives and communication plans to address a variety of health disparities.

Kirken sees the program not only as an opportunity to serve those disproportionately affected by the pandemic, but he hopes that when the urgency for COVID-19 testing subsides, data collected through this program will ultimately lead to healthier overall lifestyles for these populations.

The NIH launched the RADx initiative to speed innovation in the development, commercialization and implementation of technologies for COVID-19 testing. Accurate, fast, easy-to-use, and widely accessible testing is required before the nation can safely return to normal life.

At UTEP, the NIH award is a supplement to the multimillion-dollar NIH National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) grant awarded to the Border Biomedical Research Center (BBRC) that seeks to address diseases that are prominent among underrepresented groups.

The RADx-UP program will build from the work already accomplished to address regional health disparities.